Road To The Olympic Games

Olympics Summer

Broken swimming records becoming a broken record

Another day in the pool, another slew of records.

Swimming standards are falling non-stop in Beijing. What gives?

Another day in the pool, another slew of records.

With five more standards falling Wednesday morning at Beijing's National Aquatics Centre, a dozen of swimming's all-time marks had been erased before the end of Day 5 of the 2008 Olympics.

And there are almost surely many more to come.

American star Michael Phelps appears to be just warming up, having already put his name on five new records through his first five events, with three more on tap.

Stephanie Rice of Australia leads the women's assault after winning gold in the 200-metre and 400-metre individual medleys in record time.

Even medal-less Canada has got in on the action, erasing 16 national-best times in Beijing.

The men's 4x200 freestyle relay squad clocked a Canadian record despite finishing fifth in Wednesday's final, while Mike Brown followed suit in his 200 breaststroke semifinal by smashing the time he set way back on Tuesday.

Four years ago in Athens, only three Canadian records were broken, all by Brown in the breaststroke.

"The swimming world is moving in leaps and bounds," Swimming Canada CEO Pierre Lafontaine told the Canadian Press. "It's moving because there is a greater opportunity to race, and there is more money in the sport. People are investing into thinking about swimming fast."

Perfect storm

But why are all these records falling now in Beijing?

In short, a perfect storm has converged at the venue affectionately known as the Water Cube.

First, the building itself: erected at a cost of over 1 billion yuan (about $155 million), the energy-efficient arena was designed specifically to coax fast times out of swimmers.

Unlike the pool in Athens, the Water Cube's lanes are indoors. That eliminates troublesome wind currents and keeps the sun out of the eyes of backstrokers.

The climate-controlled building also allows officials to keep the water temperature and humidity at optimal levels for racing: around 26 C and 50 to 60 per cent, respectively.

Water depth is just as important. At a generous three metres, the Water Cube pool is able to absorb more turbulence, making for smoother swims.

Space-age suit

Smooth may not adequately describe today's state-of-the-art swimsuits, the No. 1 factor in this unprecedented age of record-smashing.

Speedo's synthetic LZR Racer has surpassed human skin, incorporating the work of NASA engineers to put swimmers inside a low-drag, water-repellent shell that boosts their buoyancy.

The ultrasonically welded suit also creates a corset-like effect, stabilizing the athlete's core while squeezing the body into a more streamlined position.

"The suits helps us feel good in the water. If you feel good in the water, you can do special things," said Australia's Eamon Sullivan, who set a world standard of 47.05 seconds in Wednesday's 100 free semifinals.

"A big part of sprinting is feel. If you don't feel good in the water, you're not going to swim well."

Of course, the LZR Racer is the product of science, not magic, and it requires an elite athlete to take full advantage of the suit's advanced technology.

That sort of talent is found in spades in Beijing. The Olympics have always attracted the world's finest athletes, but the top men and women at this year's Games bear little resemblance to their predecessors, either in the pool or out.

Follow the money

Besides benefiting from advancements in nutrition, training and coaching, today's world-class swimmers have far greater incentive to push the limits of their performance.

Whereas the greats of the past often toiled in obscurity for three years and 50 weeks out of every Olympiad, today's are richly compensated and celebrated.

Phelps's annual earnings from multinational sponsorships have been estimated at $5 million US by ESPN, and he'll receive a bonus of $1 million from Speedo if he matches Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals at a single Games.

Elite athletes — like the best in any other field — tend to follow the money. That's led to a larger pool of talent for swimming to draw from as purses grow richer and competition becomes more and more globalized.

"Over the last four years I've never seen such a big amount of swimmers, especially sprinters, compete as much and as regularly against each other," Australia's Sullivan said.

"That's a big part [of why] you've seen the depth grow and the times drop so steadily. This group of guys has been swimming so fast for years.

"They are pushing each other to go faster."